Nina Venus: the part outside the edge
Nan Freemann about Nina Venus 3-D
Her premise is deceptively simple. Nina Venus takes familiar cheap picture post cards, glues them in the middle of canvas panels, and paints the surfaces left exposed. The postcards’ pictures show subject matter familiar to the point of cliché: cute pets, nice landscapes, colorful flowers, pretty girls: the perennial repertoire of kitsch. The ubiquity of these postcards in popular print culture and the banality of their pictures lull us: we have seen all this before, no surprise can be discovered here. But we are wrong.
1. As when we have entered a dark room and our eyes take time to adjust, it takes a while to discern that there is one picture in the center of these works extending to a certain definite line, and a second lying outward from that periphery: the inner area is a photograph and the outer one a painting. We have seen a million artworks in collage since Picasso’s great act of 1914, and in thousands of those, a photograph was set on a painted field, almost always achieving a bold disjuncture in pictorial space. The disturbing impact of Venus’ work comes from the fact that she does not break the special illusion established in the photograph, but rather sustains it: the same landscape governed by the same terms of perspective widens around the herd of horses; the same interior architecture amplifies around the girl who sits on her bed. Thus Venus establishes an upsetting Duchampian condition in which the medium shifts radically while the picture itself does not. The seam between the two worlds is barely noticeable, but, once discerned, is recognized as the frontier between painting and photography, the two most dominant (and most competitive) mediums in the history of pictures. Like crossing the border between a country that speaks German and one that speaks French, our eyes’ crossing between the territory of painting and the territory of photography brings with it a heightened awareness of the enormous and different domain governed by each, and the long complex histories of both.
The tension in this marriage of continuity with disjunction is heightened by the fact that the postcards the artist uses are not plain photographs but enhanced: they are “3-D”, lenticular photographs rendered on the fine grid work plastic lens material invented in the 1950s. Western art history is a cultural enterprise in which the successful representation of volume and space has always been held as a primary, even self-definitional, intention. This technical method of enhancing, in photographs, the sensation of parallax between objects and of distance between foreground, middle ground, and background is one of the most profound advances contributed to the pictorial illusion of three-dimensionality in recent times. The fact that so important and powerful a means as lenticular photography has been expended here in the service of such trivial images as begging poodles and flirting girls hints at of one of the great poignant absurdities of the modern world: technical miracles squandered on the silly. Venus’ introduction of such artifacts within the high-art contexts of painted canvas and gallery show heightens our awareness of their ironies.
The power of these postcards as physical objects regardless of the pictures on themes evidenced in the persistent choice the artist has made in her pictorial compositions. In a design response much like the impulse to set a vase of flowers in the exact center of a dining table, the postcard has every time been placed in the center of the panel to which it would be attached; as a result, when the pictures have been painted out to the edges of he new fields, the resulting pictorial compositions are all weighted unusually low, and oddly clustered at the center.
The artist’s choice for the shape of her canvas panel often also strengthens and highlights this aspect; the use of a circular or oval field, very unusual in painting in general, is quite common here. A circular painting field refers to its own center much more strongly than does a rectangle or square, and removes all ways of understanding location within it except those that orient to the center, as when we conceptualize urban growth by saying “everything within a ten kilometer radius of Berlin”. As utterly hierarchical as an archer’s target, the circular field also mimics the phenomenology of vision, with its strongly preferred focal point surrounded by a dim concentric periphery. The psychological effect set up as the eye explores these paintings recapitulates the process taken by the artist to construct them.
2. In the art of the photographer (no matter how thoroughly constructed may be the subject taken, and no matter how manipulated may be the process and the print) the image is the result of the exposure of a pre-existing out-there element upon the collecting surface. In the art of the painter, however, ( no matter how mimetic may be the replication of some out-there scene or object) the image is the result of a surface having been deliberately laid out with the neutral substance of pigment in an effort that intimately visits and constructs every centimeter square.
After her postcard and its canvas are physically attached, the artist’s process is an episode of mystery and adventure: to what is seen in the postcard picture she has found and brought (Marcel Duchamp’s “readymade”), she adds, through painting, a world previously not existing, newly revealed. In the painting part other works, Venus, like Vasco Da Gama leaving Lisbon, ventures out of her anchorage at the edge of the picture postcard into the open expanse she desires to cross. It is both known and unknown, and her voyage accomplishes what rarely can be done, a conflation of the contrasting processes of discovery and invention. The photo of a blue-eyed child with budgerigars gains a wide wilderness of leaves, strangely lush, strangely oceanic: bizarre elongated twigs snake across it to make contact with the birds. Two poodles posing in what originally appeared as a cute but claustrophobic room in vulgar taste now stand on a strange mustard-colored hillock in the center of an open orange background. Dramatically occupying the much-advanced foreground is an bucket in brilliant turquoise, sprouting a blooming rose.
One of Venus’ most important contributions is that she has elevated the issue of pictorial cropping and the resulting picture frame from a mundane issue involving simply formal organization into the realm of artistic conceptualization and invention in its richest and most wide-ranging sense. This is because she inquires into the issue of pictorial cropping from the direction of not what is inside the framing edge, but rather what is outside that edge.. Since she is painting not from a motif or model situation, she can paint whatever she wishes; but, since her agenda is to complete the postcard’s photograph in the area outside its edge, she must paint something true to what pre-exists inside. She takes her immediate cues from the lip of the photo, looking for formal elements from which to project.
But what picture should come into being from these scant cues?
Since she is working with a photograph, we think of the situation in real-world terms: something had been out there, in the real world, when the photograph was snapped, in that part of the world continuing outside the photographer’s chosen frame. But that world was excluded when the photograph was taken, and is now lost in the past, evaporated as surely as the selection inside the frame may be said to be preserved. We could talk of Venus’ work as reconstruction, but that would be an illusion; actually it is a fully subjective invention all her own. Between the photo and the painting, Venus drives off the edge of the world-as-given and into the world as she can make it be: a calm young woman in a polka dot dress continues to smile blandly as an unclear shape in the photograph to her right shows itself manifested as the fin of an oncoming shark.
3. The most interesting images, and certainly the ones most loaded and numinous for the artist, are those with portrait photographs of sweetly seductive young women. In most of these, the lenticular rendering of the photograph introduces another important dimension; action in time: if the viewer shifts eye point to a different vantage, a slightly different photo comes into view, and the girl winks. (In the much more risqué postcards of this kind, the pictures flash between the woman clothed and the woman nude, representing not the action of the woman in the picture but the movement of the viewer’s wishful thinking fired by sexual imagination.)
The postcards of the winking girls take advantage of norms established by long-standing portrait conventions in order to construct a sexy tease. The very close cropping of these photos is essential: breasts forbidden to be shown are not seen here anyway, because of the way the photos are cropped high at the throat or shoulder. However, since no elements of clothing are present amid the parts included within the photo frame, the viewer may assume the woman to be nude anyway: the sexual content of the picture is established while the ban on bare breasts remains modestly in place. When Venus constructs her picture beyond these photo’s edges, she must paint the woman’s body, including the parts where the breasts must be.
The question of completing the bodies belonging to these photographed heads is structurally more simple and limited than in other works, but conceptually and ethically more complex. When Venus extends these portrait photos so that bodies come into the picture, she must make her own decision whether to clothe them and how. For the photo where a winking blond raises a glass of wine, Venus has painted her body modestly wrapped in a yellow towel, over her breasts but under her arms, so as to mesh convincingly with the bare shoulders in the photo. For the intensely salacious but still somehow lighthearted picture of the girl with a necklace bearing one enormous pearl, Venus paints her nude, but wrapped in soft-edge painting like a coy romantic mist. Venus is sensitive and careful with respect to feminist social values that mitigate against authoring images which objectify women’s bodies. However, she also understands the alluring outlaw power of pictures flaunting sex.
For the artist, in all her paintings, the interaction between conjecturing what might have been and inventing what will be is the process in which the meaning of the work is discovered and worked out. In the pictures with the winking girls, Venus faces her greatest challenge and engages the most complex level of what her work is about, and makes the artworks that are the most difficult. Sometimes her clear standpoints emerge here; sometimes her doubts, confusions, and yet-unsolved dilemmas are revealed. That is one of the great powers of these works: we see established answers in the familiar photographs but questions in the new paintings around them.
4. One last important connotation is interjected by the fact that these artworks are based on postcards. When we are away, common picture postcards are our most popular way of sending a message to friends we have left behind. Like a traveler in a foreign country, Venus is seeing sights, facing encounters, and feeling reactions all unimaginably important, complex, and unruly: in her artworks she is sending back to us little letters that only begin to hint at the enormity of her experience as she travels.
Nan Freeman/Boston, March 2002